Ben Fink: The Fine Art of Food Photography

Ben Fink was born in Maryland and spent his early there before moving to Memphis. “I was very young when both my parents died, one to cancer, and one violently,” he recalls. “This influenced me and made deep impressions on my psyche, which can be seen in much of my work today. Currently I reside in New York, with my husband of sixteen years. We split our time between Manhattan and our home in the Hudson Valley.”

Fink studied painting and graphic design at the Memphis College of Art, but when he signed on to assist a photographer, a new and inspiring career path opened up for him. Within a short period of time, he began shooting editorial pieces for top food publications including Saveur, Bon Appetit, and Food & Wine. Shortly thereafter book publishers hired him to photograph books for a host of distinguished authors. His commercial clients include Kohl’s, Hershey’s, Oscar Mayer, Kraft Foods, MorningStar Farms, Hillshire Farms, Eggo, Ritz-Carlton, and Embassy Suites. He has also worked with numerous award-winning agencies including BBDO, TBWA/Chiat/Day, DraftFCB and Leo Burnett. Here is the remarkable and heartfelt story of his brilliant coverage of the intense and captivating food scene and culture of Puerto Rico.

Q: How long have you been using the Leica S-System? What attracted you to it and what are some the features you enjoy or find especially useful in your work?

A: I’ve been using it since March 2012.

It feels like a large 35 mm DSLR but captures impeccable images of superlative quality and detail. A small advantage is that it has a tethering cable that doesn’t fall out. It can go from being a camera on a tripod or studio stand to a handheld camera very easily.

Q: Which S-model are you presently using? Which lenses do you favor for studio work and for shooting in the field, and why?

A: I use the S2 and I favor the 120 mm macro lens and the 70 mm as well as a 24 mm. With the 120 mm I use it tethered in a studio setting to get detail. It allows me flexibility with my focal point. I don’t use the 70 mm with great frequency in the studio, but when I do it is to capture both detail and the environmental context at the same time. I use the 24 mm to capture a large amount of environment. At times subjects can appear prominently in the foreground, and also allow me to capture a lot of ambiance.

Q: How would you describe your photography? When did you first become interested in photography?

A: I would describe my photography as food and lifestyle.

When I was in art school I began by studying painting, and then took some photo courses. I worked for a photographer right out of art school. I studied painting and graphic design at the Memphis College of Art, and then studied art history and graphic design at the University of Memphis in Tennessee. I have been a full-time photographer since 1986.

Q: Was there a photographer or type of photography that influenced your work or inspired you?

A: Working for a photographer catapulted my interest. Also my mentor for a short time was Christopher Hirsheimer (female despite her name). She was a food editor at Saveur, the noted food magazine, then turned into a photographer. She was one of my mentors — honest, open, and extremely complimentary to my technique. Christopher is a very worldly person with a lot of knowledge of food and culture and in that way she influenced my world in my earlier years. She was instrumental in sending me on assignments around the world, helping to broaden my skills and shape my view of the world.

Q: Although several of your images are excellent examples of what you might expect to find in a high-end food magazine, a few that show the butchering process in graphic detail, are more photojournalistic in nature. Do you agree, and if so, where would such images be published in an editorial context?

A: I do agree that both images are as you describe them. I enjoy capturing a lovely image of food up close and sometimes the gritty detail of the environment in which I am shooting. This comes from my experience shooting for Saveur Magazine, which in its earlier years was more of the National Geographic of the food world. All the images you reference will be published in a book featuring an award-winning chef in Puerto Rico as well as traditional Puerto Rican cooking.

Q: What motivated you to cover the lifestyle, environment, and food culture of Puerto Rico? What did you find distinctive about it, both in terms of your personal experience and photographically?

A: Sofia Tirado, a producer I had worked with, who splits her time between New York and San Juan, asked me if I would be interested in talking to a chef who was one of her best friends in Puerto Rico. I met with Chef Jose Santaella in New York over dinner last fall and we conceived a book idea about the cuisine of Puerto Rico that would bridge Jose’s nouvelle approach to Puerto Rican food with traditional cooking. I have a close personal relationship with Chris Steighner, an editor at Rizzoli, and he became very interested when I presented the idea of the book to him. He subsequently agreed to publish it. Puerto Rico has a vibe and energy that I associated with Miami in the 1980s. It was exciting to be part of everyday life there for a period of time, experiencing how the wealthy live, as well as those whose lives are rich with tradition and live closer to the earth. Photographically, Puerto Rico is an environment rich with imagery, both beautiful and gritty, which allowed me to pull from all my photographic experience to capture the essence of the island. Along with shooting the stills, I directed a documentary that will dovetail with the book.

Q: Several of your food images reflect your background in painting and your attraction to the aesthetics of chiaroscuro, dramatic lighting and painterly transformation. Both can be called the fine art of fine food. Do you agree, and how do you know when one of your food images has transcended the genre of food photography and entered the realm of fine art?

A: I agree. I am very influenced by my early years studying art history and painting. I am so close to my work, but often it escapes me that I have actually captured what I have, sometimes not until it is pointed out to me. It seems intuitive that my work captures this painterly quality. My camera is an extension of the way I view the world, which is a result of advice given to me early on by a college professor. He said that I should “keep shooting every day and don’t over-think it.” “This will afford you a body of work that will one day result in your own personal style,” he said.

Q: Color is obviously a crucial element in many of your images and is particularly striking in the images of San Juan. Both images are painted on the sides of buildings, almost constitute an homage to the pop art era. What do you think these images say about San Juan and its culture, and why do you think they comprise an important part of your coverage? Do you have any specific technique for using color to create compelling images?

A: San Juan has a affinity for supporting art and music, in particular graffiti which has been elevated to high art in neighborhoods that are not wealthy. The artists have been commissioned to produce their art as public projects. What it says about San Juan is that much of the art is anti-establishment, extolling political and social awareness on many levels. I photographed much of this art because the imagery, much it very refined, caught me by surprise. As far as color goes, I bring images into Capture One and I manipulate them to bring out highlights and shadow detail. I tend to like my images warm and saturated. Often I vignette the edges. Choosing the time of day to shoot is very important; early morning and mid-afternoon are best, but mid-day doesn’t scare me since I can manipulate the images to maximize image quality.

Q: This image shows a religious painting amidst fluorescent light reflections, a crudely painted shelf, and what looks like a stack of coffee filters. What were you thinking when you shot this picture and how do you think it captures the atmosphere of the place where the butcher was doing his work?

A: Religious imagery interests me in terms of how people relate to it and how it relates to its environment. This particular image is lit by fluorescent lights, which is anything but natural, and the harshness of the environment such as the refrigerator door handle with blood stains, speaks of the collision of two different worlds, one that is pious and one that is brutal.

Q: Among your images that capture the feeling of Santaella — an overhead view of a cemetery that looks like an amphitheater and a striking image of a tiger-striped orange cat relaxing under the rear deck of a bright red sports car — are certainly images that makes you smile, but what does it mean to you and why did you include it in your portfolio?

A: I love cats. I have a great affinity for them, having two of my own. I always stop and talk to them and pet them wherever I am. This particular cat reminded me of a cat that I loved as a young boy that was killed in front of me by my school bus. It ignited a lot of feelings. The red car symbolized the violence of humanity, with the cat oblivious to the possible danger that it entails.

Q: Were any of these images in this portfolio shot in the studio, or were they all captured handheld? In any case, what is your impression of your S-Series Leica as a handheld camera and what characteristics does it possess as a medium-format digital camera that make it particularly suitable for handheld shooting?

A: Nothing was shot in studio. Everything was shot on location. Food was shot with a tripod and the street photography was shot handheld. The S-series is the best camera I have ever worked with. It is extremely versatile and easy to work with. It is simple and user-friendly.

Q: How do you see your photography evolving over, say, the next three years and do you plan to explore any other genres such as portraiture or landscape photography? Do you have any other locations or food cultures on your photographic plate (pun intended) in the immediate future?

A: I have done portraiture in nearly every assignment that I have executed, including the assignment in Puerto Rico. I see my work going in the direction of directing and shooting projects in the future and I look forward to working with Leica Cinema lenses. I have completed a body of landscape work that captures the look and feel of the Hudson River School of painting. Looking forward, I have plans to shoot monasteries around the world that produce food for income. There is a possible book on India in the wings as well.

Thank you for your time, Ben!

- Leica Internet Team

To see more of Ben’s work, visit his website, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.